May Sarton (May 3, 1912 – July 16, 1995) was an American poet, novelist, and memoirist. Born in Belgium (originally named Eleanore Marie Sarton), her family moved to Boston, Massachusetts in 1915 after briefly living in England. Her mother was the English artist Mable Elwes Sarton, and her father, the science historian George Sarton.
Sarton began writing poetry when she was in her teens. After graduating from high school, she moved to New York City with notions of becoming an actress. She joined the New York’s Civic Repertory Theater, and even tried her hand at starting and running one, launching Associated Actor’s Theater in 1933. Soon, her desire to write surpassed theatrical ambitions, and she focused on writing once the theater closed.
Encounter in April, Sarton’s first published poetry collection (1937), contained vivid erotic female imagery. Her first novel, The Single Hound was published soon after, in 1938. In 1945, Sarton met Judy Matlack in Santa Fe. Their 13-year relationship was reflected upon on in Honey in the Hive (1988).
Sarton’s journals, particularly Journal of a Solitude, are considered among her best works. They dealt honestly with isolation, solitude, love, relationships, sexual orientation, success and failure, gratitude, love of nature, the seasons, struggles of a creative life, and aging. It was through Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing (1965) she came out as a lesbian.
Her books have become standards in Women’s Studies classes, though she preferred that her work be appreciated for their exploration of what is universal in love, rather than as lesbian literature.
Ms. Sarton taught at both Harvard and Wellesley; her books have been taught in college courses throughout the country. In 1990, while living in Maine, Sarton suffered a stroke that made concentrating and writing very challenging. She dictated her remaining journals, and gained some comfort in being able to reflect on her life.
May Sarton died of breast cancer in on July 16, 1995.
She said of her work: “It is my hope that all the novels, the poems, and the autobiographical books may come to be seen as a whole, the communication of a vision of life.”
More about May Sarton on this site
Below is a modest sampling of May Sarton’s novels. In addition to the list of memoirs that follow, for which she is arguably even better know, Sarton was also a prolific poet. Her poetry is collected is nearly twenty volumes.
- The Single Hound (1938)
- A Shower of Summer Days (1952)
- The Fur Person (1957)
- The Small Room (1961)
- Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing (1965)
- As We Are Now (1973)
- Crucial Conversations (1975)
- A Reckoning (1978)
- Anger (1982)
- The Magnificent Spinster (1985)
- The Education of Harriet Hatfield (1989)
Memoirs and journals
- Recovering: A Journal (1980)
- Journal of a Solitude (1978)
- The House by the Sea: A Journal (1977)
- At Seventy: A Journal (1984)
- Endgame: A Journal of the Seventy-Ninth Year (1992)
- Encore: A Journal of the Eightieth Year (1993)
- At Eighty-Two: A Journal (1996)
- I Knew a Phoenix: Sketches for an Autobiography (1959)
- After the Stroke: A Journal (1988)
- Plant Dreaming Deep (1968)
Biographies about May Sarton
- May Sarton on Wikipedia
- May Sarton: The Poetry Foundation
- May Sarton: Poetry.com
- May Sarton Poems and Information
- Reader discussion of May Sarton’s books on Goodreads
- May Sarton’s page on Amazon
Articles, News, Etc.
- May Sarton’s Grave – Nelson Cemetery, New Hampshire
Quotes by May Sarton
“Help us to be ever faithful gardeners of the spirit, who know that without darkness nothing comes to birth, and without light nothing flowers.”
“We have to dare to be ourselves, however frightening or strange that self may prove to be.”
“Without darkness, nothing comes to birth, as without light, nothing flowers.”
“One must think like a hero to behave like a merely decent human being.”
“True feeling justifies whatever it may cost.”
“I feel more alive when I’m writing than I do at any other time — except maybe when I’m making love.”
“Anyone who is going to be a writer knows enough at fifteen to write several novels.”
“Public education was not founded to give society what it wants. Quite the opposite.”
“Loneliness is the poverty of self; solitude is richness of self.”
“Does anything in nature despair except man? An animal with a foot caught in a trap does not seem to despair. It is too busy trying to survive. It is all closed in, to a kind of still, intense waiting. Is this a key? Keep busy with survival. Imitate the trees. Learn to lose in order to recover, and remember that nothing stays the same for long, not even pain, psychic pain. Sit it out. Let it all pass. Let it go.” (Journal of a Solitude, 1975)
“The fear of homosexuality is so great that it took courage to write Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing,; to write a novel about a woman homosexual who is not a sex maniac, a drunkard, a drug-taker, or in any way repulsive, to portray a homosexual who is neither pitiable nor disgusting, without sentimentality …”
“Words are more powerful than perhaps anyone suspects, and once deeply engraved in a child’s mind, they are not easily eradicated.”
“At some point I believe one has to stop holding back for fear of alienating some imaginary reader or real relative or friend, and come out with personal truth.”
“There is no doubt that solitude is a challenge and to maintain balance within it a precarious business. But I must not forget that, for me, being with people or even with one beloved person for any length of time without solitude is even worse. I lose my center. I feel dispersed, scattered, in pieces. I must have time alone in which to mull over my encounter, and to extract its juice, its essence, to understand what has really happened to me as a consequence of it.” (Journal of a Solitude, 1975)
“Love opens the doors into everything, as far as I can see, including and perhaps most of all, the door into one’s own secret, and often terrible and frightening, real self.” (Mr. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing, 1965)
“In the middle of the night, things well up from the past that are not always cause for rejoicing–the unsolved, the painful encounters, the mistakes, the reasons for shame or woe. But all, good or bad, give me food for thought, food to grow on.” (At Seventy: A Journal, 1984)
“The more articulate one is, the more dangerous words become.”
“Learning is such a very painful business. It requires humility from people at an age where the natural habitat is arrogance.” (Small Room, 1961)
“The most valuable thing we can do for the psyche, occasionally, is to let it rest, wander, live in the changing light of room, not try to be or do anything whatever.”
“The more our bodies fail us, the more naked and more demanding is the spirit, the more open and loving we can become if we are not afraid of what we are and of what we feel. I am not a phoenix yet, but here among the ashes, it may be that the pain is chiefly that of new wings trying to push through.” (Recovering: A Journal, 1980)
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